Flying Down To Rio --- Part Two
Hard-luck RKO had dropped from profits of three million in 1930 to ten million lost for 1932, with receivership a next stop come 1933, despite turnstiles spinning for Little Women and King Kong. Those were but two of an otherwise desultory lot numbering forty-nine released in 1933 (eight were independent productions RKO distributed), most done for smaller change per volume goals set by head of production Merian C. Cooper. RKO was backed by corporate giant RCA, but limitless $ didn't come with it. Profitable for '33 was Morning Glory, Ann Vickers, and Professional Sweetheart, with Christopher Strong, Sweepings, and The Ace Of Aces representing loss. Biggest negative spenders of the year would be King Kong ($672K) and Flying Down To Rio ($462K). A lot rode on getting the musical into a money class with Warners' 42nd Street and Golddiggers Of 1933, two that had revitalized this genre over a just-past season. Rio called itself the first indoor aerial circus and girl show ever produced, this referring to chorines on plane wings that climaxed the film and dominated most of its publicity, all faked in airplane hangers with aircraft suspended off the floor, thus "indoor" aspect of the circus. Still, it was sporting of RKO to reveal tricks behind their third-act spectacle, King Kong having given them basis for pride in FX work done on the lot.
They'd sent cameramen to Rio for background shots to establish locale and supply footage for process screens the actors could stand before. What came back was effective enough to make some think a whole cast/crew had made the trip. Finished product to rival Rio Rita's stand-up boxoffice was hope expressed by RKO. Certainly they'd not had a musical so successful since that 1929 blockbuster ($2.4 million worldwide). A Radio City Music Hall premiere was deemed appropriate, Rio to be the 5,945 seat palace's Christmas attraction. Surface-wise, this looked to be a printing machine for cash, what with holidays and infinite space within New York's most celebrated venue, but size was the rub for this biggest and most expense-laden of barns. Variety assessed the situation a few weeks ahead of Rio's opening, calling Radio City's the largest fixed overhead of any two theatres in the history of the business (its pair of screens including the Music Hall and a smaller RKO Roxy). RKO was obliged to tender a million dollar yearly rental to the owning Rockefeller family, and there was debt of $600,000 beyond this payable to RCA and the Rockefellers. 1933 had already run up an operating deficit of $135,000 on a venue that was eating up an estimated $105,000 per week just to stay open --- and these were Depression dollars.
Flying Down To Rio was the feature part of a two-and-a-half hour Yuletide gala that would become a Music Hall tradition. Best seats were $1.65 and there wasn't a more lavish revue in town. Notable among the supporting bill was Walt Disney's latest Silly Symphony, The Night Before Christmas, a Technicolor reel amounting to an event in itself, as there were no short subjects so eagerly anticipated as Disney's. This one was especially well-received for following-up Santa's Workshop, the previous year's first leg of St. Nick's journey with his toys. Radio City engagements were generally limited to a week, few shows able fill so many seats beyond that. Flying Down To Rio would be only a second to do so, according to Variety (Little Women the first). Its initial week receipts of $100,000 translated to Rio seating apx. 165,000 patrons. This number removed from prospective customers explains why a second week is invariably doubtful, said the trade, except where the hold-over session includes a holiday. Closest Broadway competition was the Paramount Theatre's Alice In Wonderland bow, at which Mary Pickford appeared to perform a brief sketch and convey holiday wishes to packed houses. The deal gave Pickford a guaranteed $10,000 plus a split of grosses past $60,000. It took big money, even then, to launch films upon waves of perceived success, that perception vital to bookings and terms negotiated down the line.
Two weeks at the Music Hall put Flying Down To Rio in a winner's circle and start toward worldwide $1.5 million in rentals. Some have written it "saved RKO from bankruptcy," though receivership was underway by time of Rio's release. The Carioca rage kept the film on a public's radar, RKO touring their fifty "Original Carioca Dancers" from the film through presentation houses during 1934. Flying Down To Rio would be remembered as the musical that invented Fred and Ginger even as merits past that became more obscure. MGM's The Bandwagon in 1953 harked back when it made reference to played-by-Astaire Tony Hunter's "Swinging Down To Panama," its artifacts being sold now that Tony, and his hopelessly old-fashioned movies, are in eclipse. If Flying Down To Rio was a relic, at least folks still had fun watching, with television having taken 50's receipt of most 30's song and dance fests. Rio would maintain distinction as the one with scantily-clad girls stood on airborne wings, irresistible kitsch that endeared camp-seekers and kept Rio flying on revival screens. The iconic one-sheet, among most sought-after by collectors, fetched a whopping $239,000 at 2008 auction. Double that and you could have made the movie again in 1933. Original Rio elements seem happily to survive, if Netflix's HD stream of late is any indication. Nice to know there are at least some vintage RKO's that can put a 2011 glow on.